Confession time: I was a fan of “Gossip Girl” for longer than I like to admit. Though it was a guilty pleasure, the high-camp, high-class, histrionic exploits of wealthy young New Yorkers made for entertaining TV. That vision of New York City as a playground for the ultra-rich and ultra-beautiful is one shared by Xavier Manrique’s debut film, Chronically Metropolitan. But whilst the former easily manages entertainment value, if not cerebral edification, the latter fails badly at both.
Our hero in Chronically Metropolitan is Fenton Dillane (Shiloh Fernandez, “Evil Dead”). Fenton has been living away from the city, but returns to the family home after his father, Christopher (Chris Noth, “Sex and the City”), is hospitalized following a car accident.
His return, however, does not garner a warm welcome from anyone outside his immediate family. His original exile, you see, was not done necessarily by choice. He had written a book with characters that bore an uncomfortable resemblance to everyone in his life, and his take on them was not at all flattering.
On top of this icy reception, Fenton also must face his about to get married ex-girlfriend Jessie (Ashley Benson, “Spring Breakers”), as well as fight through his seemingly inescapable writer’s block.
There is plenty of potential drama to go around, yet Chronically Metropolitan is devoid of any character that is not a stereotype or completely empty. Chris Noth’s carousing, louche author is a caricature. Mary-Louise Parker (“RED 2”) as a jaded high society matron is derivative. At least, though, you can see some semblance of personality there. But what traits can you hang on Fenton Dillane? Despite his ridiculous name (the only laugh I got from the whole film), there is absolutely nothing to him. He is a husk, a shell, a body in want of a brain. And yet the movie asks us to believe that he is a writer of peerless talent.
Jessie too, is a complete non-entity. Shiloh Fernandez and Ashley Benson are not bad actors, but neither are they so good that they can compensate for having such thinly-written characters. If you watch this film, and are invested in the two of them getting together, I’m genuinely curious as to why.
And the characterless characters also beg the question — how are any of these people meant to have inspired Fenton’s first novel? They barely inspired me to keep watching for 90 minutes. The thought that anyone would want to invest in a book about them is laughable (oh look, there is a second laugh after all!).
The outrageous wealth on show is another factor in the vacuity of Chronically Metropolitan. Though most of the people we meet in the film have jobs, it’s clear that they don’t need them. In fact, they don’t really need anything. They go through their days half-aware, in a fug of cigarette smoke and ennui. There’s no hero’s journey for these people, because they’re aimless. Just killing time until they die.
If this was what the takeaway of the film was meant to be, then it’s utter failure at providing anything of interest could be excusable. Sure, there have been better films at showing the lethargy and lack of meaning that can accompany obscene wealth (almost anything by Michelangelo Antonioni, for example). But at least then Chronically Metropolitan would have achieved what it set out to do, however ham-handed and tired that goal would have been.
Or if the film had gone down the “Gossip Girl” route, and amped all the characters up to eleven, then it could have been entertaining. If they had taken the riches on show and gone crazy with them, making this film a hedonistic, orgiastic party. If the screen had been full of wild events and unbelievable happenings, then at the least Chronically Metropolitan wouldn’t have been so chronically dull.
But Nicholas Schutt’s screenplay implores the viewer to actually feel something for these husks and caricatures, without ever giving you any reason to. Perhaps he is Fenton, perhaps he knew these people, perhaps this is all one big autobiographical exercise. I hope it helped him work through whatever issues he needed to work through. It is still no excuse for inflicting this shallow mess on the rest of us.